July 25, 2006
Edward Tufte, in his new book, Beautiful Evidence, continues on his crusade for information density. Here's a representative recap of a Tufte seminar from 2001:
Tufte spent most of his talk walking around the room while talking on a wireless mike. He had two projectors set up, but for the most part he only displayed pages or pictures from his books, instructing the audience to follow along in their own copies (which had been provided to every attendee). He occasionally carried around some other props, in particular a few 400-year old books from his personal library. This style not only entertained and engaged the audience, it also emphasized one of his main points, which is that progress is often measured in data density - how many bits per unit of area can be accomodated by a hard drive or a display.
In terms of text display, a page in a phone book can hold 36K of information, while the best display can only show about 5K. If you look at something like a topographical map, the resolution available on paper is a factor of ten, at least, beyond what can be shown on a screen.
Tufte feels that the same mantra about data density should be applied to web sites, and in fact to the entire contents of the computer display that the user sees when navigating a web site. Thus, he dislikes task bars, menu bars, status bars, and other GUI screen overhead, since they constrict how much of the display can be used for content. Once you get to the actual site, he has similar disdain for banner ads, navigation bars, graphical frills, and the like.
Tufte feels that the main measure of a web site (or any computer interface) should be the percentage of the screen that is actually devoted to the task at hand. He wants web pages to use words instead of icons, because [words] can display information more compactly. He does not like navigation bars, but instead wants as many choices as possible on the main page.
You'll find the same theme repeated in all of Tufte's books: progress is measured in information density.
Although I definitely understand the desire for maximizing content and minimizing UI clutter, I have a hard time squaring the desire for maximum information density with the current Web 2.0 drive for minimalist content.
These days, you rarely see screens packed densely with content and hundreds of links, but that's what Tufte seems to be asking for. We even make fun of the Yahoo home page because it has become so dense over time. Are we wrong, and Tufte is right? Average display resolutions haven't increased that much between 1996 and 2006; we went from 800x600 to 1280x1024 or thereabouts. And we have the RGB magic of ClearType which increases effective horizontal resolution by about 3x.
Maybe the Yahoo home page design overreaches because it's now being designed as if it was a printed page. We have higher resolutions, sure, but computer displays are still nowhere near the resolution of a printed page. Perhaps the current trend of design minimalism is simply eliminating wishful thinking: mating the very low resolution of a computer screen (as compared to a printed page) with a corresponding reduction in content.
But Tufte isn't the only design guru to worship at the altar of information density. Jef Raskin, in The Humane Interface, talks about this at some length. He even references Tufte directly:
We seem to have a real fear of displaying data in our interfaces. We know that people can quickly find one among a few items much more quickly than they can find one among dozens: there is less to look through. But it does not follow, as some seem to think, that it is therefore better to have fewer items on each screen. If you have hundreds of items and split them up among dozens of screens, you lose more in navigation time than you gain in searching for the individual item, even if the one you seek is swimming in a sea of similar-looking items.
Visual designer Edward Tufte's first three principles for displaying information are:
- Above all else, show the data.
- Maximize the data-ink ratio.
- Erase nondata ink.
All we need to do is substitute pixels for ink for his advice to apply to display-based devices. A serious, professional user wants screens packed with useful stuff. Screens should be well labeled, with methods to make finding things easier and dense with the information that represents the real value of each screen.
One of the most remarkable examples of information density, at least in a commercial product, is Dr. Bronner's soaps:
Click the image to see a larger version. You can also obtain PDF versions of the labels directly from the company website (scroll to the bottom).
I remember the first time I saw a Dr. Bronner product; the incredible density of the tiny text on the label drew me to it. Yes, they're filled with half-crazy religious ravings. Not so fun in person, but if someone is this jazzed about a bar of soap, it's somehow endearing. You can see a small video clip of Bronner ranting in person via the Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox documentary trailer.
You'd think a label filled with reams of tiny, indecipherable text would be the kiss of death for any commercial product. Not so for eccentric Dr. Bronner and his soaps. Is it a victory for information density? Maybe. I think Craigslist is conceptually pretty close to what Dr. Bronner was doing.
Posted by Jeff Atwood
"Yeah, but birth control? Is that really SO necessary while hiking?"
Rest assured that I agree the whole Dr. Bronner package ranting it totally whacked. I'm not a fan of castile soap anyway, so I don't like what's inside either. That said, I've heard that hook-ups are not that uncommon on the Appalachian Trail. :-)
There seems to be something akin to "lean" thinking here, aiming for maximum information *flow*, but there is still the constraint of usability, as per Donald Norman's ideas on design. Too much information puts people off, results in mistakes, etc. Also highly dense displays are unlikely to be accessible to visually impaired people or those with low-res displays (mobile phones, web browsing
by speech/audio, etc). I don't think density is the key. I think matching the display to people's cognitive processing is. Pie charts beat tables for proportion comparisons. Graphs are better for trends.
I would agree that displaying as much information on the screen is a good way to go if you don't have too much conflicting and different information to convey.
As with any debate, things tend to go to the extreme, each side using the extreme of the other to argue their point. "Your website has a million and one things and is confusing to navigate. Thus we should go minimalistic". When in reality, it only tends to be confusing if the million and one things are unrelated, and the interface is trying to do everything at once.
I think there is a difference between a _busy_ interface and a _dense_ interface. I think the latter implies that it is filled with relevant, useful information. While the former implies a lot of noise (graphics, ads, icons, etc.) To me, Yahoo is busy.
But I think there is something missing from the discussion: sure, a page in a phonebook has a high density of relevant information, but its a very specific purpose for a very specific type of media. You certainly wouldn't expect to port a phonebook to the web as just a series of pages to click through. The web interface would use _search_ and show relevant results, albeit with less density than a printed page.
Comparing computer screens to printed media is only applicable (IMO) when the computer representation is static (Word, PDF, scan, image). When you are talking about an interactive application, the rules of the game are different.
I think Steve Krug of /Don't Make Me Think/ fame answered this question for me: it doesn't matter how much is on the main page, so long as users can find what they are looking for quickly. I believe he even cites some usability testing he did where they saw that users only really scan and thus only really see the thing they are looking for.
Usability has to be the king here. If users can't access the information we're trying to provide -- no matter the desnsity of the offered data -- then it's like the data is not even there.
A phone book page can hold 36K of information, but how much of that is USEFUL to the reader? I'd say about 7-100 bytes (depends if you're looking for a phone number or an address). So we've got this book full of probably billions of bytes of information, only 100 of which are useful to the reader at a given moment. Compare that to a search engine where I can type the name of the store (or the type of store), and scroll through maybe 5000 bytes for the 100 I need. The phone book is progress compared to that?
Tufte is the classic example of somebody's who too smart by a half (i. e., he's smart, but not smart enough). What he fails to grasp is that not everybody is like him. Where he see "Beautiful Evidence" many other see confusion. They simply can't deal with the data density he finds so illuminating.
With whom are you trying to communicate? Yale academics? Then go for the density. Or are you trying to reach out to people who can't keep multiple mental balls in the air at one time? Then go for simple and direct.
A phone book has a dense data representation out of necessity. You simply have to put as much information on a page as possible because you are limited by the physical format of the book. The page has a fixed size, and a total number of pages that is fesible to use.
How do you search a book? You quickly fan the pages till you get to the section with the letter you want. Then you flip pages till you get to theright one. Than you put your finger on the page, and scroll down till you find the information you want.
Compare this to Google interface where you get the information in two steps. You type in a query, scroll down the results list.
The information density on a web page might be lower, but the speed at which the information arrives is much higher.
There is no need to put allot of information on a search page because most people only stay on that page as long as it takes them to type in a query.
Is it desirable to have your user fishing for information on your page? For example, I routinely use Firefox's incremental search feature to find the details I want when I encounter a page that overwhelms me. What I'm doing is taking your high density page, and extracting information I want.
Sometimes this might be a desirable setup. If you are presenting statistical data, or some kind of compilation, it might be logical to put it all in one place and let the users fish.
But I definitely do not want to use my browsers search feature to find the news section on your page or hunt for the illusive download link.
I'd have to say Tufte's just wrong. I've seen several of these text-only-cram-it-in sites, and they make it harder to find stuff. Like everything, there's a balance, but subtle visual cues and good use of negative space get the user to their data quicker every time. The problem is these solutions get 'bottled' so quickly, then re-used without thinking about their application.
Digg is a good example- tons of content, but enough space and color to get an idea of what's going on instantly. But witness the crop of copy-cat sites trying to apply the concept and failing, either because implementation is poor, or because the whole concept doesn't apply in their situation.
Well i think there is a fine balance between content and the interface to that content.
It all starts with knowing who your end user is.
Know them, be friend them, and learn how to continually improve how you deliver what they want, that you have.
If your a organic soap buyer, so obviously their design/interface is not gonna be aimed at you.
But yet design can't be too unusal, that it detracts new customers from using it.
So it's a balance. But so much of this feel of balance is just instinct, intuition, it's hard to put factual basics into it.
I believe in informational architecture, how the page is structured, easy to read, easy to find what i need to find or want to find.
If i can't find it, easy access to help or support.
The only reason to make it difficult is if that is part of the allure, like orkut, hidden or hard to get access to.
That can be fun at the start, but in the end if the users can't figure out how to get hte products/services they want in an easy enough way, your competitor will easily snap them up.
This really seems like the "age-old" fight between print designers and web designers.
A phonebook is a static medium where the only interaction between the "user" and the medium is the flipping of pages and the reading of text.
The phonebook entries are sorted and categorized so it is easy to find the information your are looking for. A phonebook is easy because it's entire contents are (usually) in one large volume, right in front of you.
Thumbing through a phonebook is a LOT faster than clicking, clicking, clicking, clicking through multiple pages of information on a web site. Can you imagine if you had a database of a phone book and then just dumped it's entire contents to someone's browser, forcing the user to scroll, scroll, scroll page after page, trying to duplicate the functionality of your thumb on a book?
When you have an interactive site, where information is contained in a database or on some other site, you need to have a more sophisticated way of searching for and retrieving data.
So Tufte doesn't like navigation bars, but wants choices. Choices of what? Navigational aids are nice because:
1. If a user is "scanning" text on a page, they will know pretty quickly if what they are looking at is what they want.
2. Why force them to continue to read or scan to look for navigation to take them somewhere else?
3. If you have well thought-out and executed navigational aids, a user can use that navigation to help find their information much quicker.
I think a lot of people are missing the fact that Jeff is basically musing out loud and not advocating it; all the comments are preaching to the choir of anyone who would read this.
Shawn: The Do Not Call list does exactly that, opens up a text file with every number on the list in an area code. . (They eventually added a searchable interface, but never bothered to point it out.)
Yeah, I know. But I am sometime like the Dennis Miller of development and I go off on rants sometimes.
I just dont "get" people that don't "get" that the web/your monitor is a different medium than a newspaper or a book. Trying to force a web site to read like printed material is like the whole "square peg in a round hole" idea.
Keep making the square peg small enough, and it will eventually fit through, but it's not exactly satisfying.
David Ogilvy (sp??) of Ogilvy and Mather, advertisers extraordinare, published widely on this 50 years ago for a couple of decades. He concluded, and research at the time confirmed, that the more you told the viewer the more successful the ad was. Same idea.
We reactionaries argue that pixel glitz doesn't add any kind of density, save noise.
The main point about use: either support *all* input from the mouse, or not at all. It's the flipping back and forth that makes people crazy.
I've always wondered whether the amount of text on the Dr. Bronner's soap package is based on an awareness that the product is very popular with backpackers/hikers, particularly on the Appalachian Trail in the U.S.
Hikers use this stuff for everything--soap, tooth paste, dish washing, deoderant--because they only have to carry one product. (I tried brushing my teeth with it once and just about lost my hiker's breakfast.) Hikers have lots of time to sit around reading.
It also reminds me of the religious rantings you see in "folk art" such as that from Howard Finster.
Yeah, but birth control? Is that really SO necessary while hiking?
Over the time ,the people are giving up to the evident: the data density will must match the data we can process. Leave the upper density to the machines, they can handle it, but they cannot understand it. At last, we are talking about better comunication from interface to people...
Minimalist content certainly sucks, and it is definitely a capstone of the web 2.0 movement. Sometimes however people mistake the amount of content for the density of content.
Just cause someone is using 400 words, doesn't mean they are providing any information. I'd much rather read "Upload your photos here, free, for life", than ...
"We are a web based image application processing firm from Ohio. Using our compementary combination of bleeding edge web technologies, you can upload any graphical data you see fit, in compressed or uncompressed form, and we will endeavour to ensure that your data remains intact for a duration that we see fit."
It's basically about saying everything that must be said, as succinctly as possible.
I attended Tufte's course in Washington D.C. last year. I found it to be an excellent course in presentating information and overview of his printed material. It was a truly enlightening experience for me, a web developer.
He *specifically* addressed digital displays and their inability to match print in terms of resolution. He asserted that digital displays are a long way off from matching print resolution. However, he noted that digital displays typically allow for interaction. He suggested providing summary data that can be summarized and then drilled into or zoomed into in order to reveal more precision. Also, he suggested that non-web interfaces (mission control, etc.) require multiple display units (see http://research.microsoft.com/displayArticle.aspx?id=433 ). The best of both world's would be interactive digital display with print-like resolution or print with interaction, but until those options exist, we need to make design decisions appropriately.
A lot of people like to bash Tufte without reading his material or attending his courses. They don't realize that the majority of the examples he cites are printed and span the course of history. It's critical to really understand his material before critiquing it.
When I first looked at the Dr. Bronner's label, I thought, "I wonder if Gene Ray was using this stuff when he made up his Time Cube diatribe?". Go to Gene's website, www.timecube.com, for more "info" on "Nature's Harmonic Simultaneous 4-Day Time Cube".
It has to be combined with good zoom functionality. If it had that, this type of interface would work well. But, most of today's interfaces aren't navigable via zooming. It's all paged and context-driven.
If you had a 36000 page phone book presented densely on a single page, it'd be easy to find what you wanted via browsing if you had access to tools that facilitated whipping across and around the image and zooming in and out quickly to inspect the detail.
I love when people claim a product isn't animal tested just because it is so old, no one alive remembers the tests. Chances are, far enough back, someone tormented animals, or even slaves to ensure the product was safe. Centuries later, we get all warm and gushy because we don't know the details, and frankly, don't WANT to know.
That is ONE massively pointless wrapper though. I understand why cereal boxes have lots of writing, but are you really going to read the bottle/box/dispensor of soap as you use it? I kinda doubt it. I suppose if you forget a magazine it might be handy tho.
Say, aren't you commiting a hideous copyright violation by posting a scan of their product packaging?
I have to say that this is a pretty stupid arguement. Everything about it is relative. I mean, think about it. If there was someone who was looking to find as much about this guys soap as he possibly could, of course he would want to have something like you see above. It doesnt make any sense whatsoever in another situation. I mean, how often do you go online with those intentions. For instance; if someone wanted to find a specific fact about that soap, or just anything in specific, a table of contents or something like that corresponding to a library-like webpage would be much more effective, regardless of the efficiency.
What I'm not understanding are the benefits of having a page like that other than having all of the info right in front of you, even that which you dont have any use of.
Tufte is wrong. Period. There are two goals of visual display interface:
1) To present all the information.
2) To acheive maximum information consumption.
The first is limited on one end by MAX density (the most words / pixels possible) BUT on the other end by amount of display available.
1-1000 paper pages describes all the printed letters and books to 99.9999% of the universe.
With that limit in place, density at least might be a forced good - the author / publisher can't afford more atomic costly pages, and he can't achieve greater word economy - then and only then do you study Tuftes method from cramming in an organized fashion.
But when the amount of display avialble approaches infinity - he's just being snobbish and dumb.
Add-in the use of technological advances towards KNOWING and PREDICTION... and he's not worth the display in front of our eyes.
People don't LIKE to read. They might believe it is good, but like eating vegan food - there has to be an unobvious END beyond the immediate notion of ease and comfort. Chocolate and TV are easy. They are also both powerful.
I'm right - because in the real world, no can even hint that reading is better than TV for serving BOTH functions above. Because reading sucks and people hate it.
No one can pretend that feeding users the "exact right thing next" doesn't blow the doors off, "here it all is - hope you're as smart as Einstein!"
Because YES - we must provide all the info Einstein would demand - but KNOWLEDGE is meant to be easier for the next smartest guy to learn BECAUSE of Einstein. And the next and so on...
It is actually pathetic and so un-romantic for the dumb old to try and eat the smart young - the old are over, all thats left is the pattern they build into the future for adaptation.
Tufte is selling a dying breed into an exclusive club of "remember when" that admires themselves while they die.
I kinda thought that the purpose of communication was to impart something (knowledge, emotions, transcendence, etc.) from one consciousness to another.
How you do it (highly verbal/information density or highly visual/information density or highly olfactory/...) is dependent on two things: 1) what tools you have to communicate with, and 2) the intended audience--flashing graphics may have as little effect to a blind audience as shouting would to a deaf audience.
It's interesting that nobody's mentioned that background can impart as much information as foreground. Whitespace can help transform singular points of data into patterns that convey information with lower boundaries of perception and shorten the distance between sender and potential receiver(s).
I guess it's as simple as remembering your message and your intended audience--regardless of the medium the message is being transmitted through. Of course that presumes that both you and your audience share enough commonality (an information-dense presentation in Etruscan is less likely to be understood than a simple line drawing).
you suck lOSER u have no good info bitch
My take on it:
Content/Information Density = Good
Interface/Task Density = Bad
If I'm simply looking for information, then when I find it, I want to receive as much of it as possible.
However, if I'm just trying to get something done, I don't want to be bothered by 50 buttons that do things I'm not interested it.
I don't mind scanning (skimmimg?) information, but I really hate having to scan an interface, and I think that's true for most people. The rules for content-based websites are different from those for Web Applications, be they "Web 2.0" or "Old School".
This is why I think the MS Office guys are really onto something with the ribbons. Context-sensitive tasks. Don't bother the users with things they don't want to do, and instead leave as much room as possible for the actual *information* (the document). Now all they need to do is extend the Direct UI, as is (sort of) done in Visual Studio, Refactor Pro, etc.
Very interesting!A dyzzying mix of occasionary striking prose and logical coherence.
I'm totally agree with you and want to say something from my side that displaying as much information on the screen is a good way to go if you don't have too much conflicting and different information to convey.thanks to this blog for making discussion on this important topic.keep it up!
Great post . I disagree with you on this point .I don't think that density is the key. I think matching the display to people's cognitive processing is. Pie charts beat tables for proportion comparisons. Graphs are better for trends.Bring innovative things with brief and important description of things.rather than giving irrelevant and extra information.thanks.